John T. Davis Saves the West for Last

Having recorded his first albums aged 68, the Holywood filmmaker muses on reincarnation, working with Mudd Wallace and his affinity with America

It’s weird enough that at the age of 68 filmmaker John T. Davis, whose much-admired documentaries have included Shellshock Rock, about Northern Irish punk music, and Route 66, about the semi-mythical American highway of that name, has made his recording debut as a singer-songwriter. What’s even more weird is that he has released two albums simultaneously: Last Western Cowboy and Indigo Snow.

‘I don’t really think of them as "the first album" and "the second album", he says. ‘I think of them as all of the same stuff because they were recorded at basically the same long session.’ Davis does, however, believe that Last Western Cowboy has more of a country feel and Indigo Snow is more western.

‘There’s a distinction between country music and western music,’ he explains. ‘I’ve made several movies in Nashville and I know all about country music and I’ve also spent a fair bit of time travelling in the west and I would say that country music is about relationships and how they can come and go and be good and bad and western music is more to do with the environment and simpler things.’

Davis sounds thrilled to have created the albums. ‘I’m new to this game, I’ve come to it very, very late in life, and I don’t quite believe I’ve done it,’ he laughs.

The album was produced by Mudd Wallace whose recent death, aged 59, shocked the Northern Irish music community. Davis readily acknowledges that Wallace’s expertise was invaluable in bringing the albums to fruition.

‘He was a wonderful character,’ recalls Davis. ‘He was an incredible musician with an incredible ear and the ability to navigate through a song and hear it the way it should be heard.

It was a steep learning curve for me and I was amazed how Mudd was able to weave the different musicians together and know what to put in and where and also leave space for the vocals.’

The albums reflect Davis’s affinity with America’s Old West, an affinity so profound that he believes that he may have lived there in a previous life. ‘Was I there?’ he muses. ‘Was I there when the golden spike was hammered in and the railroads [linking America’s east and west coasts] met in Utah? I’ve been several times to the Navajo Reservation and you see a buffalo run and it’s something I relate to deep inside.

Reincarnation is a big word but I have a sense of being born in another time and relating to that time more [than the present].’

Davis’s identification with America began early, he explains: ‘I’m of an age where cowboys and Indians were what you played as a kid and my heroes were western heroes like Hopalong Cassidy – and there’s a song about Hopalong ['Ol’ Hoppy'] on Last Western Cowboy. That sort of stuff is deep for me and I always feel that when I step out of my driveway into Northern Ireland, it’s like my home is in a different place altogether.’

Many of Davis’s songs have actually been inspired by his visits to America. ‘Gas Station Roses’, for example, has its origin in San Antonio. ‘My partner Lesley and I both liked dancing,’ he says, ‘and the song’s about a dancehall we went to, the Midnight Rodeo.

It was a big corrugated honky tonk and the dance floor was like a race track – it even seemed banked on the corners - where the couples would go round in an anti-clockwise direction doing the Texas two-step. But it’s really a song about love growing cold because I sing, “When love left the dancefloor...”’

‘Over There’ was co-written with Sam R. Gibson who himself has recently released an impressive album, Seeking The Assassin. ‘I was in Mississippi when America was at war in Iraq and it was about 100 degrees,’ recalls Davis. 

‘I came out of this diner and across the street was this old character who looked World War II vintage, with a thousand yard stare, selling watermelons. I didn’t speak to him but I just said, “He stood in the shade/By the watermelon glade/And stared into a land/He used to understand.” And that haunted me. And then I saw Old Glory hanging limp in the dead air and the metaphor of that came to me.

‘And when I got back home I worked on it with Sam and he came up with “Are we fighting for Jesus or gold?” and “Does the banner hang stained?” It’s about all wars.’

One of Davis’s most memorable songs is ‘Hank’s Song’, a tribute to Hank Williams, one of his musical heroes. The song was written after he visited the grave of Williams and his wife Audrey in Montgomery, Alabama.

‘I had a moment of reverence and then I said, “I’m going to sing a song for Hank”,’ he reminisces. ‘So out came the guitar and I sang [the Hank Williams song] ‘You’re Gonna Change’ with tears in my eyes. It’s about Miss Audrey and him so I thought it was appropriate.

‘That experience gave me the line for my song: “Looking for the grave of old Hank Senior …” And the graveyard gave me the next line: “I laid my hand on your stone Stetson hat/Reached down to feel the soul of the hillbilly cat/And I felt your tears for all those years…”’

Davis seems flummoxed when I note, approvingly, that although he performs in American musical styles and uses American vernacular in his lyrics, he sings in his own Northern Irish accent.

‘I just sing the way I sing and I don’t think of it as a Northern Irish accent,’ he says. ‘In fact, I’m shocked at you saying that because you have to sing in the idiom. Singing country music or western music or rock’n’roll in an Ulster accent just doesn’t work so I don’t think I sing in an accent - but if I had the choice I would like to have a voice that came out of deepest Oklahoma or Montana!’

Last Western Cowboy and Indigo Snow by John T. Davis are both now available to purchase via Amazon, iTunes and Google Play. For the latest news and updates visit www.johntdavisfilmandmusic.com.